The concept of a double bubble, or “quaranteaming” with another family, first blipped onto my radar in the late spring. At first, I was fine at home, and so were my husband and teen son. Happy I had made it back safely from my far-flung adventures, I didn’t even mind being a landlocked travel writer stuck at my desk. It wasn’t far off from my early days as a travel guide editor, reading about other people’s travels from my desk. But then June arrived, school ended without a return goodbye for the students, and my son and his cousin’s much anticipated Rotary exchange to Japan was canceled. With no plans for a summer vacation, things started to get a little claustrophobic feeling, and just depressing.
That’s when my cousin Jen and I put our heads together. Our one socially distanced backyard afternoon to get the teen cousins together left us all yearning for more contact. It also got the creative wheels rolling. “What if,” I texted immediately after, “we planned a quarantine beach vacation together for a week? A socially distanced double bubble vacation for our two families?”
“How about two?” she countered. I paused, with two families, it would be like buying one week with our regular vacation budget and getting one free. Plus, a two-week getaway sounded like the perfect antidote to four months of quarantining alone at home.
Done and done!
Planning Makes Perfect
It was easy to create a vacation bubble with my cousin. We’re not just family but also friends, our kids are the same age and friends, and we follow the same strict social distancing rules to protect both ourselves and our mothers, who visit us often. We talked about expectations in advance, including regular topics like vacation budget, but also what health precautions we would take, including self-quarantining for two weeks before vacation, COVID tests, wearing masks outside the house always, but not inside, since once we were inside the bubble, we’d all be an extended family.
A Vacation Home Of Our Own
A house rental instead of a hotel was also an easy step, both for space considerations and for health and safety ones, since a self-contained home would make it easier to keep distance from other vacationers. The beach was also an effortless decision to land on; the combination of sand, water, and sky feels like it’s made for social distancing, and New Jersey has a treasure chest’s worth on its long shoreline (for inspiration, see our ultimate list of oceanfront homes you’ll want to escape to ASAP). We wanted to be in driving distance, not having to risk a restroom break on a longer drive, but also to be far enough from home that we would see and experience new things. And in this age of pandemic, we wanted to make sure we avoided the destinations that were making the news with party scenes of spilling-over crowds. We realized we’d be spending more time in the house and avoiding busy boardwalks and packed arcades, so it was important to have extra living space, too (a consideration that made us bump up our budget).
After a week of late-night scrolling through Vrbo and Airbnb, we still hadn’t found the perfect mix of space for two families and a location we liked. And then I remembered a basic lesson from my travels: When in doubt, turn to a professional. In this case it wasn’t a travel agent, but a realtor I’m connected to on Twitter who handles beach rentals on Seven Mile Beach. Bingo! Having someone else do the legwork made planning feel more vacation-like than work. She pointed us to a secluded dune location in Avalon, a quiet barrier island I had stayed at many times before, but in a quieter spot I wasn’t familiar with. Perfect. She explained enhanced cleaning procedures, plus was able to give us first-hand information on how the layout would work for our two families, including the fact that two of the bedrooms had attached bathrooms, with another bathroom in the hall for the two teens to share.
Location chosen and house rented, we were ready to roll. But would it feel like a real vacation? And how would we navigate our time together after so many months of socially isolating?
I don’t usually believe in signs, but as soon as we arrived, a massive rainbow illuminated the beach, creating a welcome like none I’ve seen in all of my global travels and making us feel like we had entered Oz. And having company that wasn’t immediate family was a dream. The teens came together with a magnetic pull, sitting next to each other playing video games, heads together laughing over TikTok videos, sharing jokes and snacks late into the night. One of my favorite moments came when the dads sat in on Mario Kart, creating our own arcade adventure, no quarters required. We had family game nights that ended with peals of laughter, especially when we discovered our endless game of Clue was the result of having two rooms in the secret envelope. Actually, we laughed a lot, enjoying new company after so many months at home.
The Beach Is The Thing
The seven-mile-long barrier island we chose for our beach vacation felt like the land COVID forgot. As we strolled over the uncrowded dunes, sat on the nearly empty sand, bicycled around the easy-to-navigate streets, my whole body started to relax. Unmasked in the ocean and stretching out on my beach chair, the cool ocean breeze tickled my nose. I realized it was the first “normal”-feeling moment, vacation or otherwise, since March. Every day, Jen and I would spend the 5 o’clock hour watching the lifeguards move their rescue boat back from the water’s edge, our clock-free signal that it was time to start thinking about wine hour back at “home.” The teens were free to wander down whenever they chose, with just enough autonomy to make their own schedule. The two dads made plans for movies to watch together and traded beach reads. And, mostly, we all just marveled at being on a traditional beach vacation in the midst of an unprecedented summer of pandemic precautions. It was basically beach bliss.
To Dine, Perhaps To Dream
After four months of cooking every meal at home, we were ready for a vacation that involved very little DIY dining. However, in pandemic-stricken New Jersey, indoor dining is still closed, and our families weren’t ready for crowded locales. We ordered in a lot, everything from pizza to lobster, tried casual seafood meals sitting at benches outside a few times, and hit as many ice cream spots as we could find in our seven-mile-long vacation destination. All but one, the first night, had exemplary mask compliance and window service (including award-winning Springer’s in Stone Harbor). One, however, was so bad, with snaking lines inside and limited distancing between customers, that it seemed to scare our teens away from exploring much on their own. And, finally, we worked up to one real restaurant night out after lots of research to find one that followed all distancing and safety rules. “This feels like the south of France,” sighed my cousin as we scanned the twinkling fairy lights and blooming hibiscus after we took off our masks. A waiter poured our wine -- swoon -- and a busboy expertly cleared the dirty dishware. There were multiple courses and changed cutlery. It was a real dining experience, on a real vacation, the kind we’ll remember long after we return home.
The Leaving Is The Hardest Part
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I took a full two weeks off on a real vacation. Nor could any of the other adults in my group. Time flew. We all got along. Truly, we never had a day that didn’t work.
Adding special days to our vacation helped us to vary our routines -- one day the teens went forest zip-lining while the parents walked through the adjacent zoo; another time we all went bay kayaking with a naturalist. One day we all played pirate miniature golf. When it was over, and having nothing to look forward to, we felt deflated. When will we fly again, plan regular travel, visit far-off family, see new lands? Eventually. One day. But for now, we had our double bubble beach vacation and it was wonderful.
Tips For A Double Bubble Vacation
First, find another family who shares your same values and interests. It’s easier to plan a trip with others who have the same expectations and, just as importantly, have been taking the same COVID precautions.
Create a time to talk during each stage of planning. Jen and I spoke nearly every day during our house search, emailing listings back and forth and creating lists of pros and cons. After we had signed the lease, we had a group Zoom talk about what to bring and who would take which rooms. We put the teenagers in charge of picking games and puzzles, and choosing our special activities.
Have “the talk” about COVID testing and precautions.
Finally, set some rules about guests. One hard conversation was who could enter our bubble. In the end, our two 75-year-old moms came and spent the night, but we had to say no to friends.